Editors note: Tim recently returned from Mexico. This is the first of two columns from the trip.
It’s hard not to like Mexico. Leave home on a cold, bleak February day and a few hours later step off a plane to instant summer.
The Woodwards returned from there last week. But for a few panic-stricken moments while boarding the plane in Boise, it looked like the vacation would end before it began.
It was my fault, of course. Tired of groping for passports and boarding passes with busy TSA agents waiting for them on previous trips, I bought a murse.
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A murse, for those unfamiliar with them, is a purse for a man. A manly purse. It has a strap so you can sling it over your shoulder, and it keeps the important stuff handy. We’d boarded and were stowing our carry-ons when we realized that the murse was nowhere in sight.
Panic? My blood pressure was rising faster than a Canaveral launch. Passports, reservations, wallet, everything we couldn’t do without was in the murse. Without it, we’d have to cancel the trip.
Reasoning that I must have set it down in the boarding area, I began fighting my way to the front of the plane like a fish swimming upstream against the tide of boarders. Then …
“Here it is, Dad.”
It was our son, Mark, who had spotted it on the seat in front of ours — absentmindedly left there by ... let’s see, who could it have been?
“All right, Dad,” our daughter said in the tone of voice young people use to address doddering parents. “From now on, all four of us are watching the murse.”
With four sets of eyes eyeing the murse, like hungry dogs watching a pot roast, we made it to our destination. The place where we were staying was south of Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast. South as in approximately the distance from Boise to Horseshoe Bend — far enough from town, and virtually everything else, that we had to rent a car to get around.
Driving in Mexico isn’t like driving in the U.S. It’s something akin to every man for himself. Make that every man, woman and child. We were driving to a store to buy groceries when a car and a motorcycle simultaneously careened around us on either side, missing us by inches. On the motorcycle were a man, a baby, a woman and a toddler.
Seconds after that — I swear this is true — a man standing on a traffic island blew a scorching blast of fire at us. A fire eater, working for tips.
We were still reeling from the fire eater and four-person motorcycle when a man on a bicycle ventured into three lanes of heavy traffic pulling — again, I am not making this up — a wooden cart carrying five little girls in what appeared to be First Communion dresses. We held our breath till, miraculously, they reached the other side.
The next day, a winter escapee from Canada reacted nonchalantly to being told about it.
“Things like that happen all the time here,” he said. “The way everyone drives is crazy. But you never see an accident.”
He was right. Lots of close calls. No accidents.
Because we were so far out of town, the store we were driving to while dodging fire eaters and families on speeding motorcycles wasn’t one of those catering to tourists. Everything from labels on packages to signs identifying products sold on the aisles was in Spanish. A Spanish-English dictionary would have lessened the confusion, but we’d forgotten ours. What would have been half an hour of shopping at home stretched into nearly two hours, highlighted by the Micodin Fiasco.
Micodin (at least that’s what I thought it was called) is an essential product for those doing their own cooking in Mexico. It’s a chemical for soaking fruits and vegetables. You put a couple of drops in a bowl of water, soak them for 15 minutes, and the microscopic demons responsible for Montezuma’s Revenge are vanquished.
“Por favor?” I asked a young store worker in my atrocious Spanish. “Donde esta Micodin? (Where is Micodin?)
“Micodin?” he asked, looking at me as if I had three heads.
I wrote it down for him.
“Ah, Micodin! Follow me.”
We walked roughly half the length of a store to the pharmacy, where he proudly pointed to a display.
“Here is Micodin!” he said.
It was a display of ... reading glasses.
Armed with grocery bags containing everything we needed but Micodin, we drove to the condo — where a bottle of it was waiting on the counter. The correct name: Microdyn.
The grocery bags’ contents included a package of hot dogs, which my wife bought to feed to the dogs that frequent Mexican roadsides. My grinch-like reaction was that it was a waste of money. Hadn’t the dogs been able to fend for themselves before we got there?
As we turned off the highway onto a side road, the hot-dog lady shouted at our daughter to stop the car.
The dog, a black and white collie mix, looked at us indifferently — just another carload of gringos.
Until he saw the hot dogs. Seldom had any of us seen a dog, or anything, eat so enthusiastically. Forget chewing; it was straight from the mouth to the stomach. My wife had made a hungry dog’s week. For him it was like winning the lottery. Whatever we paid for those hot dogs was worth it. In the face of my wife’s kindness, I was suitably chastened and vowed to try to be less of a grinch and more like her.
The condo’s remoteness turned out to be a blessing. We’d waited so long to make reservations that everything in Mazatlan proper was either booked or not in our budget. The condominium development may have been isolated, but it had a first-class golf course. We aren’t golfers, but that proved to be an advantage.
The place was beautiful — a pool as long as a football field and a beach that went forever — and almost no one using them. If half a dozen people were at the pool, it was crowded. Everyone but us was golfing.
On our first morning there, I walked to the beach and marveled at what, for me at least, was the chief benefit of being so far out of town. The beach was empty. I don’t mean empty as in not crowded. It was literally deserted. From a point on the south to another on the north, a distance of several miles, I was the only person. Miles of pristine beach — sand and surf, pelicans and dolphins — and not another human in sight. It was like walking into “Robinson Crusoe.”
For the rest of the clan, this was a minor attraction. They prefer the bustle and attractions of the city. For me, it was Shangri-La. I went to the beach every day and never tired of it.
The city is fine; it has its place. But for some, there’s no better company than nature — untrod, untrampled. It was the perfect antidote to missing murses, itinerant fire eaters and motorcycle daredevils with babies on board. A deserted beach, a good book and a cold beer — life, where is thy sting?
Next: Over-the-top Mexican hospitality.
Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.